The best £6 I ever spent! 31 small items that could make your life a tiny bit better
Ducky toast tongs, candle sharpeners and an apple tree … our writers name one gadget, gizmo or thing they didn’t know they couldn’t live without
The roll-up sun visor
“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” William Morris said. I’m fussier. Have nothing in your wardrobe that you do not know to be useful and believe to be beautiful.
Case in point: a wide-brim straw visor, which will usefully protect you from the sun and make you look cool. A classic straw hat will do this, if you are Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief or Jean Seberg in Moment to Moment. But if you are anything like me, a hat will make you hot and flatten your hair and so you will take it off (thus forfeiting the sun protection), Then you will leave it somewhere and it will be lost for ever.
A visor won’t make you hot, won’t make your hair sweaty, and has an enjoyably sport-adjacent Williams-sister-on-Centre-Court vibe. The roll-up kind comes in pliable straw, and when you unfasten the Velcro or ribbon, it swiss-rolls into a size small enough to keep in your handbag. It’s an invention of wondrous simplicity, and the best thing to happen to holiday packing since Bernard Sadow had the ingenious idea of putting wheels on his suitcase.
Magnetic key holder
I am a person who always loses things. Well, misplaces things: the object I’ve lost always turns up, usually 30 minutes after I have finally, grudgingly bought a replacement at annoying expense. I have wasted a cumulative 400 hours of my life searching for things before I leave the house, subjecting my family to increasingly enraged self-talk: “Where’s your bag? What did you do with it? Why are you like this?”.
I tried expensive solutions to this problem, such as Bluetooth-tracker tiles that attach to key rings and wallets and remotes, but they never seem to work when you need them. But the thing that made a significant difference was a cheap, magnetic key holder that looks like a cloud. I bought it on a whim in the middle of the night: it sticks to the wall and looks cute, and when you chuck your keys at it, it just snatches them up with its fascinatingly strong magnet. I kind of look forward to using it, which is ridiculous, but it does mean that I rarely lose my keys any more (or leave the house without them, as it’s on the wall right next to the front door). I now have four of them, and am considering attaching metal strips to everything I own so I can fully transition to cloud storage.
Young apple tree
This spring we woke each morning to a robin sitting on its tallest branch and singing his heart out as the blossom unfurled and the bees buzzed. In summer, it has cooled our front room and given us privacy. In autumn, it will offer a steady supply of fresh apples, and by winter its grey skeleton will let the much-needed sun back in.
A whip is a young tree, usually only a few years old, that has had no training. It’s also the cheapest way to buy a tree. Our beloved tree was a pencil-thick whip that barely reached my shoulders when we bought it about 10 years ago for less than £20; now you can see it from the end of the road. It’s easily paid us back in apples, it’s prolific. My apple tree is a lovely old English variety called the Blenheim Orange, or in some circles Kempster’s Pippin, a delicious, nutty-flavoured apple that improves in flavour as it ages and works as well cooked as it does raw. But more importantly, it defines the house, it cools the air and shades the car, and it feeds not just us, but the bees and the birds who love the rotting apples.
It’s no longer the only apple tree on the street, and I hope neighbours see the practical and beautifying benefits. With any luck, more will follow. This is one of the few I’ve bought that will (hopefully) outlive me. That’s a rare pleasure in a purchase.
The head torch
A head torch is for outdoorsy, adventurous kinds of activities, you think? True, I did get mine – or my first, there has been a series – for something like that. I used to do a bit of climbing, the sort that sometimes involved starting before dawn, or finishing after sundown, or just being out and about at night.
I don’t do so much climbing these days, through changing circumstances (shrinking cojones mainly), but I use my head torch more than ever. Changed my life? That may be pushing it, but it has certainly made it better, and more visible.
Hel-LO, you say. You’ve got a phone. Have you not found the torch feature on yours? To which I reply: Hel-LO! Have you tried holding your iPhone in your mouth, face out, so that the torch points forward. Go on, try. You can’t, right? Edge in first, like a biscuit, no problem, if you want to uplight your nose, or downlight your chest. But if you want the light shining forwards (which, let’s face it, is where you’re most likely to want it), then you have to hold it in your hand. Meaning you only have one hand left to do whatever it is you want to do.
That is the beauty of the head torch: it frees up two hands as well as illuminating the area towards which you’re looking. So you can pick your padlock, put the bins out late, turn the page of your page turner, or indeed scale the north face of the Eiger.
I use mine for reading – while camping, or at home if someone else wants the lights off. I use it as an extra bike light. If I had a dog I’d walk the dog with it – I know people who do. I take it to festivals, mainly as a fashion accessory, to be honest, a bit of glow-worm/lighthouse chic, while remaining free to throw some shapes, but also for tent assemblage, or just tent-locating.
When the switches in the fuse box trip, I know exactly where my head torch is. Come Armageddon, or when Putin switches off the lights for good, I’m going to know exactly where my head torch is. You’re going to need one too: because the world will be quickly divided into those who have them, and those who don’t. Trust me.
In the meantime, I’m wondering what to do with this pair of sad, neglected crampons. Aerate the lawn maybe? Actually that’s not a bad idea …
The cat litter locker
When I first got my kitten, I knew it would be many months until I could introduce her to the garden, and that meanwhile, she’d be using a litter tray. But I had no idea that a) many methods of cat-mess disposal are environmentally destructive, and b) a kitten is a furry pooping machine.
Some people scoop the poop and chuck it down the toilet, but that can lead to clogged pipes (and even parasites entering the waterways). The Environment Agency recommends wrapping it and disposing in the household waste – but even if I was using biodegradable bags instead of terrible plastic, that would still mean a lot of bags used (and a lot of trips down to the communal bin).
Enter the litter locker – essentially an airtight chamber (making it smell-free) that you store poop in until it’s full, therefore disposing of one massive bag of poop instead of lots of little ones. Fewer bags used, without stinking up the gaff. I kept mine by the tray itself for what may be the quickest poop-removal option out there. My kitten has now grown into an outdoor cat, but if she ever needs to be kept in again, poop will not be a problem.
A big green plant changed my life. The Taunton Deane perennial kale wasn’t big when I bought it (from Incredible Vegetables, a tiny business specialising in unusual perennials which happens to share an allotment with my dad), but it rapidly grew, fell over, and kept growing.
It’s better than a magic bean. We began picking leaves from it, and it grew some more. Ever since, we’ve had a year-round supply of fresh, organic greens from just outside the back door. Best of all, my children actually like them (lightly steamed; I also chop and fry them or add them to pasta dishes).
Perennial vegetables, as George Monbiot points out in Regenesis, are a crucial, low-carbon future food. And these magic kales make annual greens that require copious watering, get devoured by “pests” and can only be eaten once (if we’re lucky) seem a ridiculous faff.
OK, so perennial kale leaves don’t taste so succulent all year round (they are nicest in winter and early spring), but they seem impervious to cabbage white butterflies. Pigeons, it seems, are partial to kale, but my simple solution to pigeon-munching is to fill the vegetable patch with more perennial kales than the birds can eat.
I’ve now branched out into Daubenton’s kale, a much smaller perennial with an even better, slightly nutty taste, and the 1.5m-high Purple Tree collard cross called ‘Keeper’. Once you’ve got a few plants, you can propagate more from cuttings. Then all your friends can turn over a new leaf, too.
Perennial kale, Taunton Deane and Purple Tree collard, £5.99 per cutting
I laughed when my then boyfriend bought an egg-boiling machine when we moved in together. Who needs help boiling an egg? Well, me as it happens. Because two kids later (reader, I married him, namely for his egg-boiling machine) and living in constant fear of toddler meltdowns triggered by their boiled eggs being the wrong consistency, it is the most-used item in our kitchen. It is the precursor to the much-hyped egg cooker that recently went viral, but being ancient, ours can only do boiled eggs (not scrambled, poached or omelette-style like the latest Gen Z versions).
Simply pierce the egg and add the appropriate amount of cold water according to the number of eggs and consistency that you require (as directed by the measuring cup) and switch it on.
That’s it. You don’t have to think about it all – meaning you can get entirely distracted by the 17 other things that demand your attention, like a baby crawling up your leg or mopping up an inevitable spillage, without compromising your eggs. When it beeps, breakfast is ready and sanity is preserved – for now.
Dog-poo bag dispenser
Only fellow dog owners will recognise the power of a flimsy compostable bag to make or break your morning. Before a kind (or potentially embarrassed) friend gave me a poo-bag dispenser for Christmas, I was forever pulling the things out of pockets at inappropriate moments, like the wedding when I got emotional, reached down for what I thought was a handkerchief and blew my nose on something very non-absorbent (which ended as badly as you might imagine), or the many occasions I failed to locate one at the vital moment because I’d gone out in the wrong coat.
This simple little dispenser is now clipped on my dog lead, so when he’s out, the poo bags are too … as long as I remember to refill it, obviously.
24 more things that could change your life
Binoculars All budding bird watchers should own a pair of good binoculars. The sharpness of the Hawke Nature-Treks is truly astonishing, revealing usually hidden nature at her best.
Handheld mandoline Forget regular mandolines, which have to be assembled and then put back in their box after every use, and so rarely see the light of day. The Joseph Joseph handheld mandoline is perfect for quick salads and vegetable dishes, and its grip/finger protector thing works well at preventing an unwanted dressing of fresh blood going into the mix. Kohlrabi remoulade anyone?
Herb scissors A pair of herb scissors are indispensable – they save so much time on the fiddly chopping of basil, parsley and coriander. Every kitchen should have a pair.
Mobile-phone bike mount A handy mobile phone mount, which screws into the centre of the handlebar stem, means cyclists can finally be shouted at by the Google Maps lady – just like everyone else.
Trainers The Adidas ZX Torsion trainers are incredibly shock-absorbent, allowing marching around city streets without that feeling that your spine is being destroyed by endless concrete.
Digital luggage scales Handheld digital scales really take the sting out of that nerve-racking wait of having your bags weighed at the check-in desk. Gone are the embarrassing days of having to unpack overstuffed bags in front of queues of people.
Candle sharpener A clever little gadget, like a pencil sharpener that shaves down the wax, as vintage candlesticks are often too narrow for modern candles. Better than attacking the candles with a penknife, which feels a bit unsafe!
Pillow spray It can be a struggle to calm the mind and drift off when you’re stressed or anxious about something. The Sleep Plus pillow spray really does work wonders – a couple of spritzes on the pillow and off you go. It’s a gamechanger.
Digital photo frame They have a slightly naff image but don’t write off the digital photo frame – you can load it up with hundreds of photos, meaning you get to see pictures that would otherwise languish on your phone and never see the light of day. Best of all, family can also upload photos on to it from their phones. The only downside is, they’re really distracting …
Portable speaker Dance like nobody’s watching, they say. Well, if you want to dance when nobody’s watching, carrry a speaker with you around the house. It’s also great for the garden when you have people over; listening to podcasts in the bath (try John Lewis’s beautiful waterproof design); and the radio while washing up.
Heated clothes dryer A more energy-efficient and cheaper alternative to a tumble dryer – particularly if you have no outdoor space for hanging out the washing – the heated clothes airer is your traditional airer on steroids. They will dry a load overnight, so even if you have to put it up in the living room or home office, you can clear it all away again by morning.
Mini spatula These are perfect for getting that last frustrating scraping of peanut butter, jam or mayonnaise out of the jar, and also good for making small amounts of sauce and scrambling just one or two eggs. John Lewis’s set of mini silicone baking utensils may look like they were designed for kids, but they’re very useful in grown up kitchens.
In-sink organiser A great way to have all your washing-up tools at your fingertips, the in-sink organiser not only creates a “clear workspace” in your kitchen, it also means any drippage goes straight down the plughole. If only it had space for the washing-up liquid too.
Frozen beer glass Keep a beer (or wine, cocktail or shot) glass in the freezer, so you can pour yourself an instantly chilled tipple. Perfect for when you’re so desperate for a drink you can’t even wait 10 minutes for it to chill.
Toast grabber Not only do such gadgets eliminate the risk of burning fingers and electrocution when trying to extract toast from the toaster with a kitchen utensil, Zeal’s duck-billed silicone toast tongs will bring endless cheer each morning.
Pet-hair remover Long-haired cats can shed masses of silky, clingy fur that defy the best vacuum cleaner. A pet hair remover neatly scrapes it all off with little effort.
Fabric shaver All hail the battery-operated de-bobbler, which “shaves” old coats and jumpers and brings them back to life. A comb or a sticky roller don’t work half as well.
Non-slip jumper hangers Hanging up jumpers, rather than folding them, means you can see them more clearly, but they often slide off wooden hangers. You don’t want to use those pinch handles as they leave marks, so non-slip rubbery ones are perfect.
Jar opener There are a few gadgets to help you open jars, like flat rubber ones, but those akin to beer-bottle openers are by far the easiest to use. You sit it on the lid and it grips under the rim, then you lift it to break the vacuum seal. You can then loosen the lid easily, even doing it with one hand.
Eye mask OK, they take a bit of getting used to, but it’s so worth it to not be woken by the morning sun. Available nearly everywhere these days – including sleeper train and aeroplane freebies – but to channel Carrie Bradshaw try the Pure Silk Floral eye mask from M&S.
Handheld vacuum When the job is small, you need not risk getting a slipped disc by lugging Henry Hoover around the house: handheld vacuums are ideal for targeting emergency incidents (smashed glass), post-DIY clear ups, crumb-trails, or those mysterious balls of dust that appear in every corner of the house moments before guests arrive. If you have a child, consider it your new daily accessory.
Nutcracker/bottle opener This is extremely cool as it does two jobs in one: cracks nuts and removes corks from wine/champagne bottles. Yes you can do the latter with your hands, but this saves a lot of huffing and puffing. It will get a lot of love over Christmas.
Coffee filter Cafetières are murder to clean. Coffee grains invariably end up going down the sink and block it. A plastic filter and filter papers are gamechangers. The filter paper catches all the coffee when you pour the water in, and at the end the paper just gets chucked in the bin. End result? The coffee is pure and grain-free, the cafetière is simple to clean, and the sink is happily unblocked. Job’s a good ’un.